There’s a chilling moment halfway through “The Brink,” the new Steve Bannon documentary by filmmaker Alison Klayman, where Bannon admits the key lesson he learned working as a chief strategist under Donald Trump: “There is no bad media.” It’s an old sentiment, but one that has taken on new meaning in the aftermath of Trump’s election to the presidency and the alt-right’s meteoric rise to world power. How did a publicity stunt and a cancer supposedly buried 74 years ago under the windswept ash of a bombed-out Berlin become relevant today? Exposure.
Few people understand this better than Breitbart co-founder and former senior Trump campaign adviser Steve Bannon, and it is this fact that makes “The Brink” so unnerving. Klayman is quite obviously not on Bannon’s side, yet in her quest for journalistic impartiality, the uneasy feeling for the viewer creeps in knowing that Klayman is gifting him the publicity his illegitimate movement so desperately craves.
Starting in the aftermath of Bannon’s removal from the White House, Klayman travels with Bannon across the globe as he meets with a variety of neo-fascist foreigners and adoring Republican crowds. The alt-right has become an international mobilizing force for Bannon, one that must be won in shady backroom dealings and in front of swooning crowds in both Europe and the U.S. In many ways this portrayal of traditionally political chess moves makes “The Brink” similar to any documentary you’d expect to see on a political campaign. With minimal changes, it conceptually could have been near identical to the recently-screened documentary “Running with Beto.”
But of course, Bannon’s political movement is not in the least normal. Surrounding his charismatic use of “economic nationalism” to describe his ideology, there lies an incoherent darkness to his rhetoric. Klayman obviously disapproves of this sentiment, as a white-knuckled score by Ilan Isakov and Dan Teicher builds a frighteningly sinister tension throughout, and there is a clear comeuppance in the film’s focus on Bannon’s losses (Bannon-backed Roy Moore’s Senate upset and the 2018 Democratic house takeover are noteworthy highlights).
Yet, pound for pound, attempts at holding Bannon’s agenda accountable are severely outweighed by a suffocating sense of confusion. “The Brink” uncovers no new secrets. It makes no effort to contextualize its subject — no effort to explain why the far right is rising again, what followers of the movement believe or what the future may hold. The film is not even concerned with unraveling the obviously complicated mind of Bannon, but is instead merely content being “The Official Steve Bannon Documentary.”
Look, as far as being an entertaining hour-and-a-half documentary, “The Brink” is admittedly often grippingly suspenseful. And given its independent cinema label, it’s unlikely to reach enough viewers in order to change views on either side of the political spectrum. But it’s nevertheless impossible to just write this movie off. When reporters like Klayman strive for nonpartisanship while confronting insidious trolls like Bannon — when their work documents rather than challenges the hatred and lies of groups like the alt-right — they normalize those views. That’s dangerous.
The legitimate argument can be made that the Bannon movement has become so ingrained in the DNA of the internet, the Republican Party and the counter-liberalist movements abroad that it must be documented. It must be reported upon, it cannot be ignored. And yet, while watching “The Brink,” a sinking, gnawing feeling will arise among many viewers, that if the movement is to have a spotlight shined upon it, then it must at the very least be confronted head-on for all the danger it holds. That if Klayman is going to give Bannon this level of exposure, she has an obligation to fully commit to cutting him and his proud boy followers down to size.
Contact David Newman at [email protected].